National Security & Defense

Sweden, Jolted Awake

On Gotland Island, during the Aurora 17 exercise (Photo: Sky News)
The defense posture of a ‘peace nation’

Editor’s Note: Below is an expanded version of a report we published in our December 18, 2017, issue.

‘An American journalist has come to Sweden to report on our defense,” says an eminent Swede, long involved in foreign affairs. “I can’t tell whether this is good news or bad news.” It’s both, actually. The bad news is that Sweden faces, once more, a threat from Moscow. The good news is that they are responding — however haltingly or inadequately.

“Step by step,” says the defense minister, Peter Hultqvist. “Step by step, we are developing our military capability.” (He might say redeveloping.) Sweden is adjusting to the new realities of the region.

What region? Scandinavia? Sweden is indeed a Scandinavian country, along with its western neighbors, Norway and Denmark. Unlike them, Sweden is also a Baltic state, in a way: a Baltic Sea state. Its orientation has always been eastward. Russia-ward.

Sweden is known as a “peace nation,” and not without reason. For hundreds of years, Sweden knew little but war. But for the last 200 years, there has been no war — not since 1814, when Sweden fought with the Norwegians.

There are people who attribute this peaceful condition to Sweden’s tradition of neutrality and nonalignment. In truth, they should attribute it to “pure luck,” says Katarina Tracz, the director of the Stockholm Free World Forum.

All three Scandinavian states were lucky enough to stay out of World War I. Only Sweden was lucky in World War II — Germany invaded Norway and Denmark, not them.

During the Cold War, Sweden had a serious military: a half a million men under arms, some 350 fighter jets, and so on. “Quite impressive for such a small country,” as Karlis Neretnieks says. He is a Swedish retired general, and a defense intellectual. He goes on to say that Sweden is a small country in population: just under 10 million today. Yet it is large in size — larger than Germany (which has 83 million people). The larger the country, of course, the more there is to defend.

In addition to an impressive military, Sweden had an impressive civil defense during the Cold War. A really impressive one. Virtually every man, woman, and child — and every municipality and industry — had a job to do in case of war. And they trained for it. This was known as the “total defense system.”

Officially, Sweden was neutral as between East and West — between the Warsaw Pact and NATO. Unofficially, they worked hand in glove with NATO, and in particular with the alliance’s leading partner, the United States.

Was this true even during the premierships of Olof Palme, the notorious lefty? (He served in the first half of the ’70s and again during the mid-1980s.) Oh, yes. On the public stage, he blasted Uncle Sam, over and over. Offstage, he told his military commanders: “Clutch the Americans close.” Also, Sweden maintained a very robust defense during his premierships. This is a paradox of his career.

When the Cold War finally ended, many countries took a “holiday from history.” Many countries indulged in a “peace dividend.” Sweden overindulged. They simply gutted their military. The army went from 500,000 to 15,000. The civil-defense system was abolished. The purpose of the military would no longer be the defense of the country: It would be occasional participation in international peacekeeping operations.

“We concluded that nothing nasty could happen here in Sweden,” says General Neretnieks — “not in the foreseeable future and not ever, more or less.”

A couple of decades passed, fairly uneventfully. And then? “Then Putin happened,” as Katarina Tracz puts it, with perfect succinctness. She is alluding to Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine in 2014. Yet, as she also says, Putin had been “happening” all along.

In 2007, the Kremlin launched its cyberattacks on Estonia. In following years, there was further harassment of the Baltic republics, in the form of buzzing planes and the like. Then came what is known in Sweden as “the Russian Easter.”

Actually, it was Good Friday, in 2013. On that day, Russia rehearsed strikes on Sweden. These strikes were later revealed to be nuclear strikes. And Sweden had no pilots scrambling up to meet the Russian planes. Instead, NATO planes, from the Baltic Air Patrol, had to do it. This was embarrassing to Sweden.

Three months earlier, the chief of the Swedish armed forces, Sverker Göranson, made a statement. He said that Sweden had the means to defend part of the country — only part of the country — for a week. And that was it. This gave the nation a jolt.

But the real jolt came in 2014, when Putin annexed the Crimea and started war in eastern Ukraine. Swedish minds were seriously concentrated, as was every other mind around the region. As Neretnieks says, suddenly peacekeeping operations in Africa did not seem so important.

Sweden upped its defense spending, putting a stop to years of decline. They moved troops back to their big island in the Baltic, Gotland. This island is strategically key. Swedish troops had not been permanently based there since 2005.

In the summer of 2016, they entered into a joint defense pact with the United States. The U.S. defense secretary at the time, Ash Carter, spoke of America’s greater spending in eastern Europe: “We haven’t had to worry about this for 25 years, and while I wish it were otherwise, now we do.”

Sweden had military conscription from 1901 to 2010. They have now reinstated it, if in modest form. Also, they staged a “contingency week,” in which Swedish localities were reintroduced to the idea of civil defense, or a modicum of preparedness.

Defense relations with the Finns have been strengthened. The Finns have always been alert to the Russians, by whom they have been invaded and with whom they share a border of more than 800 miles. Swedes and Finns speak of “Nordic solidarity.” Whether this phrase is more than rhetoric is hard to know.

In September, Sweden conducted its biggest military exercise in 23 years: “Aurora 17,” it was called. (The number refers to the year, 2017.) The exercise lasted for three weeks. Swedish troops trained alongside U.S. and other NATO troops. The government in Stockholm said — almost touchingly — “The overarching mission of the Swedish Armed Forces is to defend the country’s interests, our freedom and the right to live the way of our choice.”

At the same time as Aurora, Russia was conducting a military exercise of its own, Zapad 2017, which took place in Belarus, Kaliningrad, and other areas of the Russian Northwest. (“Zapad” means “West.”)

A blunt question: Is there a true Russian threat to Sweden? Is such talk fanciful? Paranoid? Putin has said that “only a sick person” would imagine that Russia would attack Sweden. No one in this country believes that Putin will attack directly. No one believes that Putin wants to plant his flag atop Stockholm Palace. But most people believe — indeed, understand — that if Putin moves on one of the Baltic states, Sweden will inevitably be dragged in.

The defense minister, Hultqvist, says, “I don’t talk about threats. I talk about reality. I talk about things that we have seen”: the annexation of the Crimea, the war in Ukraine, the simulated attacks, including nuclear attacks, etc.

In Sweden, people speak of the “Hultqvist Doctrine.” This stands for more defense, greater preparedness. It also stands for ever closer relations with the United States, Finland, and NATO, while Sweden remains outside NATO.

It is a big issue these days: Swedish membership in NATO. There are eight parties in the Swedish parliament. Four of them favor NATO membership and four of them oppose — including the governing Social Democrats. Yet this party has a split personality: It has what you might call a realist or pragmatic side, represented by the defense minister; and it has a traditional left-wing side represented by the foreign minister, Margot Wallström.

Officially, all the Social Democrats are against Swedish membership in NATO. It is an article of party faith. Yet analysts here suspect that the Hultqvist wing, so to speak, would not lose much sleep if Sweden joined NATO. Might even gain some sleep.

In public-opinion polls, support for NATO membership has been increasing. A plurality now favors joining — yet there is a big bloc of undecided Swedes, about a third.

The arguments against membership are multifold, including these: Sweden has a tradition of neutrality and nonalignment (at least in theory); Erdogan in Turkey, a NATO member, is a brute; Trump in the United States is a wild card; and … Sweden does not do nukes. We’re Swedish, for heaven’s sake.

Over the years, Sweden has indeed been proudly anti-nuclear. And with NATO, of course, comes a nuclear deterrent. Last summer, Sweden voted for a nuclear-ban treaty in the United Nations. The foreign ministry wants to ratify the treaty; other parts of the government are strongly opposed. In September, the U.S. defense secretary, James Mattis, sent a letter to Stockholm warning that the agreement between the United States and Sweden would be imperiled if the Swedish government ratified the nuclear ban.

The Swedes did something typical of (democratic) governments: They put off the issue by forming a commission. A commission that is to report — conveniently — after the next elections, which will take place in September 2018.

And you can bank on this: If Sweden is to join NATO, the Social Democrats — long the dominant party here — must be onboard. As of now, the issue of NATO threatens to crater the Social Democrats. That is, to split them. Sweden’s entry into the European Union (1995) almost did. Even hawkish or NATO-minded Social Democrats may have to oppose NATO membership — to continue doing so — for the sake of domestic harmony.

About possible Swedish membership, Putin has said, “We will interpret that as an additional threat for Russia and we will think about how to eliminate this threat.” In reality, what could Putin do? Declare war? On whom? He might manufacture some incidents, to be sure, but his options would be relatively few.

General Neretnieks points out that Moscow was angry when Poland joined NATO (1999) and when the Baltic republics joined (2004) and when tiny Montenegro joined (2017). Swedish entry would be another cause for anger, but with what consequences?

The Kremlin would go in for its trademark disinformation, of course — they already have. I will quote Carl Hvenmark Nilsson of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, who wrote of

a fabricated letter that appeared on Swedish news sites in which Minister Hultqvist purportedly congratulated a local arms manufacturing company for exporting lethal weapons to Ukraine (a policy the governing center-left coalition strongly opposes). This act of disinformation led to a Russian diplomat being declared persona non grata, which was followed by a reciprocal gesture by Moscow.

Hans Wallmark, a parliamentarian of the Moderate party, is one of many Swedes who contend that Swedish membership in NATO would benefit both Sweden and NATO. Sweden would get the benefit — the guarantee — of Article 5, which says that an attack on one is an attack on all. NATO would get the benefit of Swedish integration, which would allow the alliance to defend the Baltic region more effectively.

The phrase everyone uses is “raise the threshold”: raise the threshold for Putin, making it all the riskier for him to cause any trouble. Making the region “a harder nut to crack” for him, as Neretnieks puts it. Isn’t this deterrence?

Announcing Aurora 17, the Swedish government said, “Deterrence lies at the core of a strong defence, one that rises to all threats and overcomes all challenges.” Sweden must aim “to deter potential attackers, and force them to carefully consider the risks of attacking our country.”

The government has just announced that it will purchase the American Patriot missile system. This is remarkably uncontroversial here — even the name “Patriot,” which is not necessarily a good word in the Swedish vocabulary, especially coming from America. A U.S. missile system called “Patriot” has not spooked the Swedes; Putin’s Russia has.

Another wrinkle to consider: If the Swedes remain outside NATO, they may be both blamed and unprotected — blamed by the Kremlin for their obvious association with NATO, and their obvious standing as a “Western” country, and unprotected by NATO. A dreadful position to be in.

Against the Baltics, the Russians could strike quickly enough to achieve a fait accompli. NATO then might have an unappetizing choice — no, a catastrophic choice: doing nothing — i.e., accepting the Russians’ action — which would end the alliance, or fighting a war to oust the Russians.

What Sweden could contribute, as a NATO member, is this: the facilitation of the defense of the Baltics. That is a clunky phrase, but I hear it in this country, and it makes sense — especially when military experts spell it out in detail.

We will leave that for another day. I will instead tell you about a new statue in Stockholm, sculpted by Peter Linde. It is a lovely work, depicting a lovely young woman. According to an accompanying sign, she is calling for “peace and disarmament on earth.” A lovely sentiment, to go with a lovely statue. Underneath the woman is the word PAX (“peace”). The statue was put up by the Swedish branch of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, an international organization that, in 1985, won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking of Latin, there is an old expression: Si vis pacem, para bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”). A cliché, and possibly an annoying one, but no less true for that.


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A word to the wise: National Review has started a new podcast, Jaywalking, in which Jay Nordlinger presents what is essentially an audio version of Impromptus. Go here. Also, to get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.


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